Fifty Years of High Potential: Vicki Martin-Smith ’83 on the Power of Community
The HP Program helped Martin-Smith gain greater confidence as a student, businesswoman, and individual. She tried to impart its lessons to her own children, she says: “Don't believe you have to do everything on your own.”
During the 2023–24 academic year, Saint Mary's is celebrating half a century of high potential. Since 1973, the College's High Potential Program has offered low-income and first-generation college students the support they need to thrive, on campus and out in the world. Above all, High Potential students consider the program a family—one that continues to expand, offering nurture and support.
To honor this milestone, the SMC NewsCenter has launched the series Fifty Years of High Potential. We’re partnering with Professor of History Aeleah Soine and students in her Spring 2023 Public History course, who conducted oral history interviews across generations, to introduce you to HP family members, past and present. We share the stories of HP students and alums in their own words.
Meet Vicki Martin-Smith ’83: a first-generation college student who earned her bachelor’s of Business Administration at SMC. After raising her three children and sending them off to college, she oversaw a sales team at Silpada Jewelry from 2007 to 2015. She and her husband currently manage property in Maryland and California.
Berkeley and beyond
I was born and raised in Berkeley, California, by a very loving family. My parents separated when I was in second grade, but my dad was really instrumental in my life and always encouraged me. This was a blessing that helped me feel more confident and strong as a young woman. My mom was incredibly supportive as well.
I think most people want to leave the town that they grew up in; that was the case for me at least. I remember going to visit Saint Mary’s for the first time, going through the Caldecott Tunnel beneath the Berkeley Hills and feeling like I was in a whole other little world. It felt far, but not too far away.
Why Saint Mary’s?
Being from Berkeley, I obviously had the awareness of other big Bay Area schools, but I didn’t have the confidence that I could qualify for them. Plus, I’ve always been more comfortable at smaller schools where I don’t feel overwhelmed. My middle school was small and so was my high school. Saint Mary’s seemed like a perfect fit in that regard.
My cousin, Lori Knight ‘79, was a student at that time. She showed me around campus and actually introduced me to a good friend of mine today, Wayne Beasley ’81. He’s like a brother to me, and is now my daughter’s godfather.
For me, it was the size, beauty, and general kindness of the campus and community that attracted me to Saint Mary’s. Those factors, along with the High Potential program, convinced me to come to Moraga.
First-Generation + High Potential
I was the first person to attend college in my family, which meant a lot, of course. Back then, just having a degree was a big deal; it didn’t really matter what your major was, so long as you could show you had a college diploma. Nowadays, of course, you better have a major that’s going to help you get a good job to pay your debt and support yourself!
The HP program helped me see myself as a hard worker. To me, college was about being diligent enough to finish what you started. All of my friends in the program had the same goal: graduate. That was our primary focus. Obviously, we had fun in college, don’t get me wrong! But I wasn't there to mess around. I was serious about my education.
Finding Academic Confidence
I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself when it came to college work. I wasn’t a top student in high school, but I was still very determined to do what I had to do as well as possible at Saint Mary’s. Now, my first semester, I had this professor for a Greek Literature class, and we had to write this long paper for an assignment. Obviously, I did it. And I’ll never forget this: The professor was so impressed with my writing that he actually called home—in my freshman year—and he really just poured into me. He gave me accolades, telling my parents how great of a paper I wrote and how I could practically do anything I wanted to do in my life.
I didn't expect him to take the time to call my home and talk about my work like that. It boosted my confidence so much.
A safety net
Tom Brown, who was the director of High Potential back then, always stood out to me. I’d go to his office and notice how he was always well-dressed, working in a really nice office. Seeing an African American male, as well as other women and people of color in positions of power, really empowered me as a student. I also really admired Nate Carroll, who was always willing to encourage and help all the students in the High Potential Program.
There was the knowledge, too, that these people were available to help assist me in whatever I was trying to do. As a HP student, you had this safety net. You could go to the HP office if you need to talk. We all knew their goal was for us to graduate and achieve success.
“I thank the HP program for believing in me, more than I probably believed in myself at the time.”
From Moraga to Hawai'i (and seven more states)
After college, I visited Hawai'i on vacation and just decided to stay there and live. It’s where I met and married my husband, David, who worked for the Coast Guard. I was 24 when we married, and we’ve been together for 38 years.
David’s career took us all over the country: seven different states over three decades. Our greatest accomplishment, though, is our three children, who I chose to stay home and raise and homeschool as we moved from state to state. Ultimately, we settled in Maryland, where every one of our kids graduated from Towson University. Once my kids went to college, I started a successful small business selling sterling silver jewelry with a team of women I mentored and encouraged. I’m sure the collaboration and communication skills I picked up in college and HP helped me with that.
It was my father who instilled in me the desire to be an entrepreneur. When he became ill, I stepped away from my business to take care of him. Now, my husband and I manage the properties I inherited from him. He was right: my Business Administration degree has come in handy.
Seeing herself fully
I truly, truly appreciate being given the opportunity to go to Saint Mary’s through the HP program. I'm thankful that they didn’t look at my SAT score and think, “Oh, forget her, she’s not able to come to our school.” Instead, they saw beyond the scores and looked at me fully, as both a student and a person. The program made me even more determined to be successful because they took a chance on me, and I wanted to prove that yes, I can accomplish this goal; I can do well in my classes and be successful. I thank the HP program for believing in me, more than I probably believed in myself at the time.
It also allowed me to be an example to my own kids, to push them to go to college and get their degrees. I always reminded them of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And I tried to teach them that if you have that inner drive to be successful, it will help carry you through life, but at the same time, don’t believe you have to do everything on your own.
That’s key, I think. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; if you already knew everything, you wouldn’t have to go to college in the first place! You’re there to grow and learn.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
MARK YOUR CALENDARS: From February 11 to March 30, 2024, SMC is celebrating the 7th Annual “44 Days of Honoring Black History and Culture.”
Tyion Johnson '24 is a Kinesiology major with an emphasis in Sports Medicine. He conducted this interview as part of his Spring 2023 Public History Course.
Sam Nobile ’25 is studying English at Saint Mary’s and serves as a student writer with the Office of Marketing and Communications.